The top American admiral in the Middle East said on Monday that Iran continues to smuggle illicit weapons and technology into Yemen, stoking the civil strife there and enabling Iranian-backed rebels to fire missiles into neighboring Saudi Arabia that are more precise and far-reaching.
Iran has been repeatedly accused of providing arms helping to fuel one side of the war in Yemen, in which rebels from the country’s north, the Houthis, ousted the government from the capital of Sana in 2014.
The officer, Vice Adm. Kevin M. Donegan, said that Iran is sustaining the Houthis with an increasingly potent arsenal of anti-ship and ballistic missiles, deadly sea mines and even explosive boats that have attacked allied ships in the Red Sea or Saudi territory across Yemen’s northern border. The United States, the Yemeni government and their allies in the region have retaliated with strikes of their own and recaptured some Houthi-held coastal areas to help blunt threats to international shipping, but the peril persists, the admiral said.
“These types of weapons did not exist in Yemen before the conflict,” said Admiral Donegan. “It’s not rocket science to conclude that the Houthis are getting not only these systems but likely training and advice and assistance in how to use them.
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Admiral Donegan gave his assessment in an hourlong telephone interview from his Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain as he prepared to conclude his two-year tour, and take a new assignment at the Pentagon.
The admiral’s comments came a day before President Trump is to address the United Nations General Assembly amid deep uncertainty about what he will do about the nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers, including the United States. The administration is conducting a review of its Iran policy, to include Iran’s backing of Shia fighters in Syria and Iraq.
In the wide-ranging interview, Admiral Donegan said that the bitter rift between Qatar and many of its Persian Gulf neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who accuse Qatar of financing militants and having overly cozy relations with Iran, has not yet hindered coalition efforts to battle terrorism, piracy or other mutual maritime scourges.
Admiral Donegan also said that the Navy’s recent 24-hour stand-down of ships around the world after two fatal collisions in the western Pacific revealed some shortcomings among ships in the Middle East that commanders were now correcting. The admiral declined for security reasons to identify the problem areas, but senior Navy officials had said the “operational pause” was to review safety and operational procedures.
On Monday, the new head of the Seventh Fleet in Japan, Vice Adm. Phillip G. Sawyer, announced that two more senior officers in the fleet had been relieved of their commands: Rear Adm. Charles Williams, the head of the Navy’s largest operational battle force, and his subordinate in charge of destroyers in the region, Capt. Jeffrey Bennett. Both were relieved because of a loss of confidence in their ability to command, according to a Navy statement.
In addition, the officer overseeing Navy surface warfare, Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, has requested early retirement.
Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin, the previous head of the Seventh Fleet, the Navy’s largest overseas, was removed last month in connection with four accidents in the region since January, including the two deadly collisions between Navy destroyers and commercial vessels that left 17 sailors dead.
Admiral Donegan’s most pointed accusations focused on suspected Iranian assistance to the Houthi rebels. The United States and other Western governments have provided vast quantities of weapons, and other forms of military support, to the embattled Yemeni government and its allies in a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, contributing to violence that the United Nations says has caused more than 10,000 civilian casualties.
The admiral’s charges appear supported, at least in part, by findings in a report late last year by Conflict Armament Research, a private arms consultancy. The report concluded that the available evidence pointed to an apparent “weapon pipeline, extending from Iran to Somalia and Yemen, which involves the transfer, by dhow, of significant quantities of Iranian-manufactured weapons and weapons that plausibly derive from Iranian stockpiles.”
For years, Iran has been under a series of international sanctions prohibiting it from exporting arms. The United States has frequently claimed that Tehran has violated the sanctions in support of proxy forces in many conflicts, including in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Palestinian territories.
Between Sept. 2015 through March 2016, allied warships interdicted four Iranian dhows that yielded, in total, more than 80 antitank guided missiles and 5,000 Kalashnikov rifles as well as sniper rifles, machine guns and almost 300 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, according to data provided by the United States Navy.
Admiral Donegan said that while there have been no seizures since, he said he suspects Iran’s hand in the Houthis’ apparent ability to replenish and improve their arms stockpiles. “It is not something that was a one-time deal and stopped,” Admiral Donegan said. “It appears to be progressive.